Since the 18th century, the printed word has influenced the course of American history.
From the founding of the United States, its literacy rates were higher than the countries of Europe. In his article “The Spread of Education Before Compulsion,” Edwin West of the Foundation for Economic Education writes that by 1800, literacy among white American males had reached almost 90 percent. In 1828, the United States sported 50 universities and 600 newspapers and journals. As West tells us, one writer reported that year, “With us a newspaper is the fare of almost every meal in almost every family.”
Consequently, certain books and periodicals played important parts in shaping our nation. The King James Bible, for example, was not only the central text for most Protestant churches—and remains so for many today—but its prose and poetry, read at home and in church, and quoted during sermons, also heavily impacted our language. It influenced the style, vocabulary, and prose rhythms of writers as varied as Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, and Ernest Hemingway.
Many other books are central to the story of our nation. Originally published as a series of anonymous articles by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, “The Federalist Papers” continues to be read and debated by today’s constitutional scholars.
Some literary works resulted in social change, like Jacob Riis’s “How the Other Half Lives,” an exposé of the late 19th-century slums in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, or Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle,” which turned a bright light on the unsanitary practices of the Chicago meatpacking industry and brought about government safety regulations in food production.
Other books have influenced our culture in more subtle ways. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its portrayal of the heroic attorney Atticus Finch, surely has led many a young person into the practice of law.
“Alcoholics Anonymous,” also known to members of AA as “The Big Book,” is the core document of the organization that has helped millions of people around the world overcome their addiction to drink. And Dr. Benjamin Spock’s 1946 “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” changed the way many Americans raised their children.
Let’s take some time to look at a few other books crucial to our history in more depth.
The First American
Though Benjamin Franklin earned the title of “The First American” for his early calls for unity among the colonies, he also deserves that recognition for his advocacy of free enterprise and for his intellectual adventurism. An inventor, a writer, a publisher, a believer in volunteerism—he helped found fire departments and public libraries—Franklin stands as the quintessential self-made American.
In his “Autobiography,” which remains eminently readable and which I used to assign to my American history students, Franklin tells the story of his impoverished youth, demonstrates his belief in self-responsibility, gives us his rules for self-improvement that helped him achieve his success, and describes his many forays into the fields of science, commerce, writing, and public life.
More than any other person in our history, Franklin is responsible for delineating and shaping the idea of the American Dream. Work hard, live virtuously, and look for opportunity, Franklin tells us in his “Autobiography,” and you will find success in this country.
An American Saint
On meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”
This “great war” was, of course, the American Civil War, and the book was “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” an 1852 novel about slavery in the South that sold more than 300,000 copies in the first year of its publication. The story converted many Northerners into abolitionists and enraged many in the South who owned slaves.
In Uncle Tom, Stowe created a Christian hero of saintly proportions, a man who even on his deathbed forgave those who had beaten him. His example led both other slaves and some of the white slaveholders in the novel to convert to Christianity, and in the case of the latter, to free their slaves.
Remarkably, “Uncle Tom” is now a pejorative for black men who are deemed servile to whites or who are seen as having betrayed black culture, leaving a casual observer to wonder whether those delivering this insult have ever read and understood this book.
One of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s dear friends was William Holmes McGuffey, the son of Scots immigrants who became a schoolteacher. At the recommendation of Stowe, a small publishing house in Cincinnati hired McGuffey to produce a series of textbooks to help elementary school children learn to read.
And so were born the “McGuffey Readers.”
Eventually, there were four of these “Readers.” The first book used phonics and word repetition to teach reading, and the other three provided students with a series of stories, poems, and passages from Scripture, including in the volumes for more advanced students passages by luminaries like Shakespeare and Daniel Webster. From 1836 to 1960, about 120 million of these books were sold to schools and individuals. The “Readers” popularized Shakespeare’s plays in the United States, and Henry Ford was so enamored of these texts, which he called one of the great influences on his childhood, that he had McGuffey’s boyhood cabin moved to his Dearborn, Michigan, museum of American history.
“McGuffey’s Readers” are still in print and remain popular among homeschoolers. My wife and I owned a set of these and used them to supplement our home-educated children’s phonics and advanced reading.
We Americans constantly seek to better ourselves. We read diet and exercise books, guides for home improvement and fashion, and manuals on everything ranging from the improvement of our spiritual life to fighting old age.
The granddaddy of these courses in self-improvement was a man who grew up in poverty, became a failed traveling salesman, began teaching courses in public speaking, and eventually gained students in that subject from across the nation.
This man was Dale Carnegie, and the book he wrote based on his observations and experiences, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” has since its publication in 1937 sold well over 30 million copies.
In an article I wrote for The Epoch Times in January, I looked at how some of Carnegie’s ideas might bring us together as a nation in our present time of turmoil. If nothing else, practicing his ideas might help us heal personal relationships broken or stressed by political and cultural disagreements.
The wild success of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” led other writers, hundreds of them, to venture into the realm of “self-help books.” Some books in this genre sitting on my shelves are Charles Murray’s “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life,” and Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly.” Whether they know it or not, these authors and their books are the literary descendants of Dale Carnegie.
At my elbow is a fat volume, 1,132 pages, of recipes and tips on the culinary arts. According to comments on the jacket, the New York Public Library designated this tome as “one of the 150 most important and influential books of the twentieth century.”
Self-published in 1931 by Irma Rombauer and her daughter Marion, “The Joy of Cooking” soon became a bestseller and America’s most-beloved cookbook. Rombauer’s engaging style and simple recipes appealed in particular to the middle class. Today this cookbook has gone through nine editions, with Rombauer’s grandson and his wife having added many more recipes to the collection.
“The Joy of Cooking” helped shape the American diet and influenced the culinary revolution we’ve seen in this country in the last 50 years. Julia Child, author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and in her time a famed television chef, praised “Mrs. Joy’s” book as having taught her many of the basics of cooking.
Books, Battles, and Common Ground
Despite our engagement with social media and the huge number of websites and blogs on the internet, we as a people continue to be writers and readers of books. In 2019, Americans wrote and published over 300,000 new titles. Though some readers prefer e-books these days, nevertheless more than 750 million print books were sold in 2020 in the United States.
The current divisions in our country have also given rise to a battle of the books. Authors from various political persuasions attack or defend our culture and our laws with their books. And not all of what draws the interest of the public comes from new books. This past year’s pandemic mandates, riots, and presidential election, for example, found many Americans picking up a copy of George Orwell’s novel about totalitarianism, “1984.”
Yet even in our bitter and fractured times, surely some books can act as glue binding us together. The books reviewed above, for example, continue to appeal to audiences of all backgrounds, and books similar to these—diet and health books, self-help books of all kinds, novels—are open to all readers. Autobiographies like Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” or Ulysses Grant’s “Personal Memoirs” give us insights into the struggles of earlier Americans, no matter what our class or race. Children’s books like Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon,” Don Freeman’s “Corduroy,” and E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” are also part of this shared cultural heritage.
When we read the books that helped shape our culture—and there are scores of them—we don’t just deepen our love and understanding of our country. We deepen our love and understanding of one another.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.